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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Hundreds arrested in El Salvador, raising fears of a civil liberties crackdown

In this handout photo made available by the government of El Salvador, gang members waited outside their cells during a search at the Ciudad Barrios jail on Sunday.

By Maria Abi-Habib and Bryan Avelar

María spent Monday looking for her 16-year-old son, checking various jails and juvenile detention centers with no luck — he was one of hundreds of people detained in the hours after a state of emergency took effect throughout El Salvador the day before.

“The police told me that they were only going to book him and I have not seen him since,” she said nervously, asking her last name be withheld, fearing reprisal from the police.

The arrests of María’s son and others came after 62 people were killed by gangs Saturday, the single bloodiest day on record in the country since the end of its civil war three decades ago. But rights groups and analysts have raised concerns that the mass arrests have little to do with the weekend’s killings and fear that the new measures will allow El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, to further consolidate power.

The violence prompted a swift response from the Salvadoran government: Military and police forces surrounded neighborhoods, searching vehicles and frisking anyone seeking to enter or leave. El Salvador’s Parliament approved the emergency decree for 30 days, suspending some civil liberties guaranteed in the constitution and giving the government the ability to make arbitrary arrests, tap phones without a court order and break up public assemblies.

By Sunday evening, Salvadoran security forces said they had detained 576 people in several districts around the capital. Some people said they were not given even basic information why their loved ones were detained or where.

“There is no great evidence that there is a connection between many of the detained people and the murders on Saturday,” said Tiziano Breda, a Central America analyst at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that analyzes global conflict and unrest.

“Some of those jailed are aged gang members and have been inactive for a while. Others are not necessarily gang members,” he said. “It’s a stigmatized sweep up, where anyone who looks like a thug can be arrested.”

María’s son, José Luis, was one of those detained at random, while he and his mother were at their home in Santa Tecla, near San Salvador, the capital. On Sunday afternoon, police knocked on their door and forcefully took José Luis away, without explanation, María said.

He was hardly the exception; security forces also arrested a well-known evangelical pastor who used to be a gang member but dropped out more than a decade ago. The pastor, William Arias, had dedicated his life’s work to convincing gang members to reintegrate into society. He was arrested in the vicinity of his church, according to a neighbor.

On Monday afternoon, at the naval force barracks in the capital, a detention center, several women were looking for their sons and husbands.

El Salvador’s government went into overdrive to showcase its efforts, tweeting videos of security forces raiding homes in poor neighborhoods and arresting scores of people on the streets. Bukele implied on Twitter that there had been about 1,000 arrests since Sunday morning, adding to the 16,000 gang members who, he said, were already in prison and would also be punished for the weekend’s violence.

The president said Sunday that the government could extend the state of emergency beyond the 30 days approved by Parliament, stoking fears that the ruling could be used to expand the crackdown and arrest government critics.

“The suspension of certain constitutional rights in El Salvador opens the door to all kinds of abuses,” Juan Pappier, a senior analyst at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter on Monday.

Bukele has faced criticism for using the military to interfere with the Legislature and for his decision last year to dismiss Supreme Court judges and the attorney general in what the opposition called an unconstitutional power grab. On Monday, the president — who has accused the United States of supporting the opposition in the past — seemed eager to fold the international community into his ongoing battle against the gangs.

After saying on Twitter that he had ordered prisons to ration food to incarcerated gang members, Bukele issued a thinly veiled challenge to the United States: “And if the ‘international community’ is worried about their little angels, come and bring them food, because I will not take funding away from schools to feed these terrorists.”

Such statements alarm the president’s critics, particularly after Bukele’s government pushed Parliament to propose a bill that human rights groups said could restrict the work of independent journalists and civil society groups if they receive funding or support from abroad. The proposed law is currently being debated and would force entities to register as foreign agents, with their funding subjected to a 40% tax.

Last year, the United States accused Bukele of striking a secret deal with the country’s most fearsome gangs, such as MS-13. The Treasury Department in December sanctioned several top officials in Bukele’s government, accusing them of providing financial incentives, prostitutes and access to mobile phones to gang leaders imprisoned in Salvadoran jails in exchange for the gangs tamping down violence.

Bukele is one of several Salvadoran presidents accused of striking such deals to bring crime down ahead of elections. The president campaigned on the promise of bringing law and order to El Salvador’s streets, some of the world’s most violent. Since taking office nearly three years ago he had seemed to be making good on that pledge.

But on Saturday the gangs killed at random: street vendors, people buying bread and taxi drivers. Analysts and a U.S. official said Sunday that the government agreement with the gangs may be falling apart — the killing spree seemed to be pressure to renegotiate the terms of the purported arrangement.

Bukele has denied that his government has struck a deal and instead said the lower levels of violence are the result of a secret security strategy, called the territorial control plan, which has never been publicly released.

“The territorial control plan remains one of the best-kept secrets of the government of President Bukele,” said Astrid Valencia, a Central America researcher at Amnesty International. “This shows the authorities’ rejection of transparency.”

Valencia added that the tool authorities seemed to be relying on — mass detentions — had been employed by previous governments with little results.

“We need a comprehensive strategy,” she said.

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